Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles
Allen Welsh Dulles was not the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, or the best, certainly not the wisest, or even the most aggressive, although in that category he comes in a very close second, after William Casey, whose most extravagant secret efforts to win the cold war may be plausibly blamed on the brain tumor which killed him. But Allen Dulles probably had the deeper natural instinct for what his biographer Peter Grose, echoing Kipling, likes to call The Great Game, and he was without question the most important director of the CIA in its first half century—granting, for the moment, that the agency will finish the full fifty years without being sliced up or killed altogether by an irritated Congress.
The conduct of secret intelligence, which was Dulles’s central preoccupation from his first job as a young diplomat in Switzerland during the First World War until his forced resignation from the CIA in 1961, is only part of what Kipling had in mind when he referred to The Great Game. By that he principally meant the hundred-year struggle between Russia and Great Britain for control of Central Asia, and it was a renewed contest with Soviet Russia following the Second World War for control of the entire globe that Dulles pursued with a patriot’s devotion, an appetite for combat, and an elastic sense of the permissible.
Dulles never doubted that the fate of the world as he knew it was at stake, but Dulles was not always right. It is possible that Stalin and his successors had more modest ambitions in mind when they determined to hold on to the countries of Eastern Europe liberated by Soviet armies in 1945. As Grose makes clear in his exemplary book, the best efforts of Dulles’s spies rarely succeeded in penetrating the innermost secrets of the Soviet regime. After the CIA acquired the U-2 spy plane in 1956 and spy satellites in 1960, the agency always knew what the Soviets had, and conventional intelligence efforts kept pretty good track of what the Soviets did, but often neither Dulles nor later directors of Central Intelligence knew what the Soviets really intended. Dulles was required to decide this question on his own.
Next to the somber granite edifice of his older brother, John Foster Dulles, who preached the antiCommunist gospel as Eisenhower’s secretary of state, Allen seemed a genial friend of everyman, with his booming laugh and comfortable way of answering hard questions with a joke or a wink. He loved tennis and played as often as he could between attacks of gout and “skull sessions,” talking shop with operatives in from the field. He seems to have been completely free of personal malice. But intimates knew it was only surface polish that distinguished him from his brother. Dulles unhesitatingly rose to Nikita Khrushchev’s challenge in 1956 when the Russian told a roomful of Western diplomats, “History is on our side. We will bury you.” The …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
The CIA and Vietnam March 23, 1995